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Key Ingredient: Acadia chef-owner Ryan McCaskey doubles down on pandan

Leaves and extract from the southeast Asian plant combine for a "toasty rice" flavor that lingers "in a pleasant way."



The Chef: Ryan McCaskey (Acadia)
The Challenger: Thai Dang (Embeya)
The Ingredient: Pandan leaf

"I've been drinking it all day," Ryan McCaskey (Acadia) said of the pandan-leaf extract he'd been sipping. "I don't know if this is going to kill me or turn everything green."

McCaskey, challenged with pandan leaf by Thai Dang (Embeya), had spent the previous few days searching the city's Asian markets for the tropical plant. After visiting nearly a dozen places, he finally located fresh pandan leaf at Viet Hoa, an Asian grocery on Argyle. But that didn't stop him from experimenting with the extract, which he said tasted quite different from the fresh leaf.

"I can't even describe what the extract tastes like," he said. "Not funky, but more—musty. I tasted it and immediately thought of grandma's attic." The leaf, on the other hand, has a toasted-rice-like aroma and flavor that McCaskey compared to genmaicha tea (Japanese green tea combined with toasted brown rice). In fact, it contains 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline, an aroma compound that's also present in white bread, basmati rice, and jasmine rice.

"You'd think the leaf would have a more aloe-y kind of fragrance, a flowery smell. But it doesn't," McCaskey said. "It's very earthy, like a reed. Like a cattail—that's kind of what it smells like. The flavor is mild, toasted, and that's really it. It's a little bit one-note. As I heated it, I found there are tannins that come out of it, much like tea. You actually get a little tannic quality out of the flavor as well."

Pandan leaf is often used to flavor desserts, McCaskey said, so he decided to make a savory dish. "I thought about the cooking of southeast Asia, and I thought about things with leaves. So I thought about tea leaves, I thought about banana leaf. I've done a lot in the past where things have been steamed in there and take on that flavor."

McCaskey wrapped halibut in pandan leaves with butter, olive oil, lemon, and salt, and put the neat little package into the oven to steam. He used the pandan extract too: in a broth with coconut milk, lobster stock, curry paste, kaffir, lemongrass, ginger, garlic, and shallot. And he steeped pandan leaf in water with kaffir leaf and a little sugar, then mixed the infusion with Ultra-Tex (a modified food starch that acts as a thickening agent) to make pandan gel. The only element of the dish that didn't include pandan was marble potatoes, cooked sous vide with butter and lemongrass. To serve, McCaskey arranged the fish on top of the potatoes, dotted the bottom of the bowl with pandan gel, and poured the curry broth on top.

"The aroma's great," he said. "You get the lobster, coconut, but you definitely get that toasty rice smell." He liked the taste too. "It's very light, very clean. The pandan creates an interesting nuance. That is a flavor that lingers. But in a pleasant way. It brings a little bit of that toasted rice right on the finish."

Who's next:

Thomas Rice of the yet-to-open West Loop restaurant Tete Charcuterie, working with monkfish liver. McCaskey has cooked with the ingredient before, and said he's a fan. "It has a rich fattiness to it, much like a foie. It's not liver like from an animal. It doesn't have that copper iron-y flavor to it, it's not like blood. It's an oceany fattiness to it that I think is great."

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